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Skill and Movement Efficiency

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By Luke Duross CF-L1, Strength and Conditioning Specialist

“A continuation of Luke’s last article”

We have already established that skill acquisition must precede intensity. Being able to safely and efficiently perform a movement decreases injury risk when performing that movement at a high intensity. 

Your quality of movement is very important as it pertains to your performance in metcons. A crucial part of capacity is movement efficiency or movement economy. Movement efficiency describes the ratio of work expended to the amount of work completed. If you can decrease the amount of physical work it takes to accomplish a given movement task, the greater your movement efficiency. 

There is an optimal or near ideal way for your body to perform any given movement based on your anthropometry. Very rarely will your optimal movement pattern look exactly like someone else’s optimal movement pattern, and everyone’s potential for success or proficiency in each movement is different. 

People like Adele Willis or Nathan Styles are predisposed to success at gymnastics-based movements because their anatomy predisposes them to such movements, whereas taller people like myself have an easier time with movements like rowing and wall balls because those movements benefit people with longer levers. I would have to work considerably harder than the two aforementioned members to be as good at handstand pushups as they are. But they in turn would have a much harder time with 19.1 than I did. That being said, success is not entirely about the hand you’ve been dealt so much as what you do with it. And there are many, many, many examples of athletes whose hard work has overcome talent that isn’t willing to work. But it certainly does help to have genetic predisposition on your side. 

Consequently, the same movements may look different depending on who is performing them due to the structural nuances of the population. There is no one size fits all for movements in a diverse population. But one thing that is universal is that your body is cheater. I am sure that anyone reading this has personal experience with this. We walk into the gym with poor mechanics and muscular imbalances which add up to movement patterns that are natural to us but can still be wildly incorrect mechanically and incredibly inefficient. These are hard to break, because they are ingrained into our brain and our neurology. When your body has been doing something the same, yet wrong, way for a long time, it does not want to change. It takes a lot of work and dedication to illicit neurological and muscular adaptations that yield new movement patterns and higher proficiency. 

As I said previously when doing any given movement your body will generally cheat to the movement pattern that is easiest for it, even if that movement pattern is inefficient as compared to an optimal desired movement pattern. Even if it is a dangerous movement pattern. This is incredibly magnified under fatigue, which is why you must take away fatigue in order to train skill. I am sure that some of you have experienced this. If you are not highly efficient at a given movement, performing them in a metcon generally yields more than a couple poor, inefficient reps no matter how hard you try to will your body to not do stupid things. It is this compensatory overuse of non-prime movers in given movements that results in injuries.  

Intensity and ability to breathe hard is not a sustainable long-term solution for poor mechanics or mediocre skills. 

We know CrossFit emphasizes skill proficiency before intensity. And to take it further, why it is very important that if you want to be as competitive as possible you need to be as efficient a mover as possible. 

Someone who is an excellent example of premiere movement efficiency is Rich Froning. Froning has not only remained relevant in the sport of CrossFit for a decade, but has dominated across individual and team fronts. When it comes to movement, Froning is a man without weakness. I encourage you to go back and watch early competition videos of Rich and take not of how much he stands out from the competition based on his movement, specifically the 2013 clean and jerk ladder. Placing 3rd in the event, Froning’s technique remained sound even in his failed attempts. If you do watch it, compare his missed attempts with everyone else’s, you will see what I am talking about. Even though the quality of the average high level crossfitter has increased a great deal over the last decade, when it comes to movement and skill, you could still make a valid argument for Froning being the best mover at the present time.

If you have a desire to be competitive, or just to get better at a specific movement you may need to shift your view of metcons as it pertains to your training. One of the pitfalls of many popular competitive crossfit methodologies is overemphasis on high intensity work, neglecting pure skill and strength work. Remember what we talked about earlier in regard to movement patterns under fatigue? It is very hard to improve skill in a metcon based on the physiological environment it creates. It is easy to look at the highlight reels of elite crossfitters crushing metcons and assume they got there with eye bleeding intense effort everyday. What you don’t see is how these people acquired the movement skills they have in order to express them at such high intensity. Unless you already have a full portfolio of crossfit skills built up, chances are you need to dial back the intensity and hone your skills. 

Every metcon, when approached with a “for time ” mentality, essentially generates the same stimulus regardless of what movements you have thrown into the mix: heavy glycolytic flux, increased blood acidity, high fatigue generation. It’s a bad environment to learn or improve skill and motor coordination. If I gave you a song to learn on the guitar, but you had to do so under the same physiological conditions generated by high intensity exercise, I don’t care how much time I gave you, you wouldn’t get anywhere. I see the same thing happen in the gym. Someone suddenly learns how to do a couple of muscle ups and now the only time they will ever do them again is in a metcon, then they express confusion and frustration as to why they have seemingly plateaued in muscle ups. Once you learn a skill, the next progression in the continuation of your perfecting that skill is not to throw intensity into the mix. 

To offer an illustration of this I will use double-unders as an example. It is a movement that is many peoples GOAT. It is a movement that you WILL NOT improve in unless you give it the attention it requires. What does that look like? It looks like taking time out of your training day to practice double unders instead of doing an additional metcon. It looks like practicing them near every day away from inhibitory fatigue until eventually you don’t have to think about it anymore because you have ingrained that skill deeply in your neurology. That is what is necessary if you want to be competitive. 

If you want to talk about this topic, come find me in the gym.

Future articles will talk about strength as it pertains to your performance in competitive CrossFit.